Adversity as Spiritual Formation
Dr. Jerry Sittser shares from painful personal experience about how adversity and suffering in life can contribute to our spiritual formation. Delivered at Biola University on February 20, 2014. Co-sponsored by Biola CCT and Biola’s Institute for Spiritual Formation.
Adversity as Spiritual Formation. The Biblical story of Joseph has always been one of my favorites. His final words, which were spoken to his brothers, have never stopped echoing in my mind. “Even though you intend to do harm to me, “God intended it for good “in order to preserve numerous people “as he is doing today.” If there has ever been a redemptive story, surely this one follows script perfectly. Still, in my mind, it is easy to forget that it actually happened. We can read about it in a half hour.
But Joseph, he had to live it out, and he didn’t know how it was gonna turn out. Every once in a while, I try to get inside his experience as best I can. What would it have been like to be betrayed by his brothers, to be sold as a slave? To be imprisoned for honoring his master and guarding the purity of his master’s wife? I ponder his suffering which lasted far longer than I could imagine and would have ever been able to endure. This is no sweet and sentimental story, not when you get inside it. I always tell my students to do that, too.
I encourage them to use their imagination, when they’re reading history or reading the Bible, to try to get inside some of those stories instead of objectifying them too much, or turning them into a sweet spiritual lesson right away. I’m especially curious about one incident in the course of the narrative, so insignificant that it hardly seems worthy of notice, but you can be sure Joseph noticed it. It would have been impossible for him not to.
If anything, it’s the kind of incident that would have driven Joseph to despair, broken his spirit. As the story goes, and you’ll recognize it right away. Two men from the pharaoh’s court, the cupbearer and the baker, were imprisoned for some impropriety. Both had dreams so confusing that they didn’t know how to interpret them. Joseph noticed how troubled they seemed and inquired about their distress. Telling Joseph their dreams, they were surprised to discover that Joseph’s God would show him the interpretation. So he asked them to share their dreams with him. Joseph predicted a favorable outcome, as you know, in the case of the cupbearer, and a very unfavorable outcome in the case of the baker.
And then, then he implored the cupbearer to remember him before the pharaoh when the cupbearer was restored to his position of power and responsibility. “Remember me,” he said, “remember me.” It seemed like a reasonable request, doesn’t it? To be sure, considering the service he rendered to the cupbearer and the years he spent suffering in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, and the faith that he had exercised all those years, but the cupbearer forgot his promise, and Joseph remained in prison. Now in my mind, when I get inside that experience, that strikes me as the breaking point in Joseph’s life.
God had dangled freedom in front of Joseph’s face, awakening hope and longing, and then yanked it away as if God were a sadist. It would have been easy for Joseph to think that, anyway, don’t you think? Joseph had remained faithful to God, and God had not returned the favor. Why trust God anymore? What would be gained by it? Now, Joseph knew nothing about the future. How could he? He knew nothing about Egypt’s years of bounty and famine, of the pharaoh’s disturbing dream, of his promotion to a high position in the court, of his supervision over collection and distribution of gain, of reconciliation with his brothers and reunion with his father. At that point in life, all he knew was his immediate experience. You know what this is like. The cupbearer’s forgetfulness or selfishness.
More years in prison with no end in sight, suffering in darkness. At that moment, Joseph had to make a choice. Trust God, or abandon faith. Now, as we know, if Joseph had been released when he had hoped and expected to be, the story would have turned out well for him, but not for anyone else. In all likelihood, Joseph would have never seen his brothers and father again, never assumed a high position of responsibility in the court, never rescued an entire nation from starvation.
Such would have been the result, really, the price when you think about it, of a premature ending to the story. It might have been good for Joseph, but not for the family, and not for the nation. By choosing to stay in the story at that moment, when all seemed lost, he gave God room to work redemption, obviously not only for him but for so many other people, as well. Now, let’s imagine joining Joseph in prison.
Let’s use this as a kind of thought experience, experiment. We hear his story, we listen to it well, how he was both forgotten and, he thinks, forsaken by God. We want to help him make sense of his experience of suffering, of his acute affliction. What perspective could we bring to bear on his experience? We could say, I suppose, that his suffering is a result of fate, the cold and cruel roll of dice that has made his life both unlucky and miserable. There is really no rhyme or reason to it. Fate has determined his destiny. It is a result of pure accident, that’s one answer.
We could say that it’s karma. In a previous life, he had made foolish decisions and followed a bad course, and now, it is his turn to suffer the consequences. If there is any consolation, we could add, it is that in the next life, he might find himself in a better state depending, of course, on how he responds to his current circumstances. In the end, his entire life and destiny rests on his shoulders alone. We could say that the incident was the result of material forces. For example, of a lapsed memory on the part of the cupbearer. Perhaps the unfortunate consequence of an early onset of Alzheimer’s. [audience laughing softly]
It would have been preferable if the baker had survived instead. His memory, as it turns out, was far better due to a superior gene pool, though his gene pool also tended to produce rather high numbers of dishonest people. We could say that Joseph was in prison because Egypt was inclined to imprison people from Semitic background in higher rates than the general population and to keep them in prison longer. Perhaps, perhaps the steward, the cupbearer, conveniently forgot to mention Joseph to the pharaoh because he was prejudiced against Semitic people. If Joseph had only belonged to another ethnicity, his life would have been better.
We could say that his experience of suffering provides sure proof that God does not exist. For no God, for no good and powerful God would ever allow such suffering to happen. It is, quite simply, a violation of the nature of God, at least according to our assumptions about who God should be. If we were God, we wouldn’t allow such things to happen. We could say that God doesn’t exist or does exist, but he doesn’t really care.
And we could cite God’s failure to intervene as sure proof that God is little more than a malevolent being, or short of that, the kind of distant deity who doesn’t really bother with such things and doesn’t care because he has far bigger matters to attend to like running the universe. We could say all this, we could say more. But these abstract answers miss the point entirely, though plausible and persuasive, because Joseph is still in prison. He’s still suffering. All he knows is his forsakenness. All he feels is his anguish and pain. None of these answers are going to change any of that.
None of these answers can give Joseph power to alter his condition, but Joseph does have power. He is not a passive victim here, not completely, anyway. Joseph has the power to choose in that moment what he will believe and how he will live. And that is a kind of power. Now the editor of the story tells us as readers something that Joseph does not know, at least in his immediate experience. He writes, “And the Lord was with Joseph.” He actually writes it three times in the course of that narrative. It burns our ears. He is whispering to us a secret, a secret that Joseph does not hear, does not know.
Joseph can believe it if he wants, but he has no way of actually knowing it is true, not in his experience. And Joseph does believe it, even if only by the grain of a mustard seed. Just so does he stay the course. Well listen, I am no apologist.
I have little interest in abstract questions about suffering. You know, philosophers and theologians populate this field of inquiry. Historians like myself like the nitty gritty of people’s actual experience. We like story, we relish detail. We wanna know the color of Joseph’s cell. We wanna know what he was eating every day. We think in terms of past, present, and future, so I will not bother to offer a defense of God here nor launch an attack against God.
Others are far better at such endeavors than I am. I am drawn to this story, especially this one incident in the story because of the drama and the irony of it. Visiting him in prison, we could have said all kinds of things about his experience, and we could have provided a wide range of answers to his predicament. But Joseph, he had to live it out. He had to wait and see. He had to let his life unfold. Joseph was, in fact, a real person. He was living a real life.
And he believed, maybe foolishly at the time, in a real God, more than an abstraction. And Joseph’s experience of suffering was real, too. This is the world in which we live. It is certainly the world in which I live, a world of uncertainty and adversity and darkness. It is the world I entered with a vengeance when, in 1991, as Steve mentioned, I lost my mother, Grace, my wife, Linda, and a daughter, Dinah Jane, in a drunken driving accident. But it’s the world that I’m exposed to every week through emails and letters that I receive.
Such is the email I read two weeks ago from a woman who lost her husband in a car accident 10 years ago, and a daughter who was so deeply troubled by the experience to suicide just two months ago. Or the email I read six weeks ago from a man who lost six out of his nine children in a house fire.
My experience and their experience are not abstractions. They actually happened, they’re real, and so are yours. The Bible uses a Greek term to describe this painful state of affairs that all of us face. The term is [speaks in foreign language]. I think it’s an onomatopoeia, is that the right term to use? It sounds like it means? [speaks in foreign language] could be translated distress or hard times, suffering, affliction, adversity.
It refers to the kinds of circumstances that strip us of control and deprive us of the happy life we want and expect. The experience of [speaks in foreign language] tests us, exposes us, forces us to look very hard at ourselves and challenges us to decide whether to trust God or forsake God. No one would choose adversity. No one would choose to lose a job they like or a child they love or a spouse they cherish or a business they own.
But choice does not necessarily come into play when facing adversity. In most cases, it just happens. Adversity does not have to be obvious and dramatic to have an effect, as you well know. Looking back over the years, I see now that it was not the grandiose event of the accident itself, the severity of which was just too obvious to ignore, that proved to be so difficult. But the little experiences of disappointment and inconvenience occurring daily that eroded my spirit and sapped my energy and put me to the test.
It was when my kids got sick, all at the same time, or when they started to fight on the way to church. Why do children always do that on the way to church? [audience laughing] And then I would teach Sunday school, and I’d feel so embarrassed because I’d yelled at my kids, and then I’m talking about God in front of a bunch of people, you know. [audience laughing] Or when my computer froze just before I was going to hit the Save button.
Or when it snowed a foot on the mornings I had a 6:30 meeting, and the babysitter was late, or when I discovered just before breakfast, that I had forgotten to buy milk the night before. You know what I’m talkin’ about, if you’re parents. A memory comes to mind. My son, John, broke his femur in the accident. He was under two, or just two at the time, which required him to be in traction for three weeks and then a full body cast for another 10 weeks, from his neck down to his tippy toes. John was still in diapers at the time, which made it very difficult if not impossible to keep the cast dry. It was certainly not the time to potty train him.
As it is, he could not stand or sit. In fact, we used to feed him using a plate. We’d put it on the floor, and we had this big skateboard he would lay on, and then push himself around the room, and he would eat off the floor. Sounds pretty crude, I know, but it worked pretty well. [audience laughing] Nights, obviously, posed the biggest problem.
So every morning, we set him, cast and all, on top of an air vent in our house and cranked up the heat in order to dry out the cast. It was surprisingly effective, although it made the house smell of ammonia. Interesting to observe that for 10 weeks, none of us had colds. [audience laughing] I managed this all reasonably well until John caught a bad case of the flu. Both he and the cast were a mess, quite literally, in this case, and so was I.
One morning, I bumped into a good friend who was on a morning walk. She asked me how I was doing, and I immediately burst into tears and began to sob. Holding John in my arms, so distraught, I couldn’t hardly speak, and I coughed out, “The accident was bad enough in itself,” I blurted. “But now this. “How long is this gonna go on, will it ever stop? “I just can’t take it any longer.” Now, I think back, why did that one incident push me over the edge, considering its relative insignificance? Typical for my kind of personality, I tried to respond heroically to the accident for the sake of my kids, then only eight, six, and two, the three that survived, which, for the most part, energized me more than it drained me. It was the day-to-day demands, disappointments and irritations, the cumulative effects of adversity that eventually exhausted me and broke me. For they reminded me I was not in control, not in control.
That’s really the point. Adversity reminds us that we are not in control and thus forces a decision, small, subtle. Will we continue to be our old self which adversity exposes as powerless and small and maybe petty? As impatient and angry, as irritable and ungrateful, and follow the same selfish course we’ve set for ourselves?
Or will be become a different kind of person, one characterized by love for God and neighbor, goodness of heart, generosity of spirit, Godliness of character, and set a better course for our lives? In either case, adversity will never let us remain as we are. Something will have to give and change. Either we will try to maintain control, growing ever more angry or depressed in the wake of frustration and failure, or we will grow in character, becoming more than we thought possible, more like Jesus.
Every day, we are making all those little decisions in the face of adversity that push us in one direction or another. You know, it’s always the little decisions that matter most, not the big ones. Here is the amazing news of the Biblical story. Adversity can actually serve a good purpose. Paul argues that the slight, momentary afflictions, there’s that word [speaks in foreign language], to which we are exposed in this life are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, which leads Paul to ask, add, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings,” there it is again, [speaks in foreign language], “knowing that suffering produces endurance “and endurance produces character, “and character produces hope.”
The word for character in this particular passage, Romans Five, [speaks in foreign language], is a cognate of a word that is translated as trial or test. Interesting association, isn’t it, between character and test. Same root word. And adversity subjects to that, subjects us to that, obviously. James argues similarly, using the same cognates, “Count it all joy, my brethren, “when you meet various trials.” Different word in that case, Greek, that is. “For you know that the testing of your faith,” there’s the word, [speaks in foreign language], “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness, “and let steadfastness have its full effect “that you be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Adversity forms us, or actually, it’d be better to say, adversity forges us into the kind of people we would otherwise never be able to become. It shapes our character, or at least can shape our character. And people of character, in my mind, are obvious. You will know almost immediately when you meet them. They fill the room, not with ego, but with intense goodness and beauty and competence. They show interest in others naturally. Good humor, generosity of spirit, and humility, and they are unselfconscious about their achievements and influence. You feel drawn to them, and yet threatened by them. And for the same reason, too.
Their excellence awakens in you the longing to become like them, yet at the same time, it reminds you of how small and selfish you are. You’ve met people like that, so have I. My experience is limited, I admit it. But I don’t know anyone with character who has not suffered, not one. It was adversity that formed character in them. The New Testament word and its various cognates describe someone who is well-proven, tested, and found true, pressured and purified. It implies a refining process by which thy dross is consumed, and thy gold is refined. Mature character reflects the very character of Jesus who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and thus learned obedience through what he suffered.
How does this work? Character enlarges us, making us bigger than what our circumstances would naturally allow. And it also purifies us. Character, quite literally, delivers us from becoming a prisoner to ourselves. It is like yeast that makes bread rise until it appears almost weightless. It is like salt that enriches the taste of food. It is like light that makes the world come alive with color.
Character infuses personality with a quality of divine beauty and transcendence and radiance. It makes us bigger and better people. I have an image in my mind of a mighty tree, weathered by the elements over the years that emerges as strong and true and beautiful. That’s what it means to be Christlike. No one comes by this naturally, no one. We might say many things about babies. I have two young grandchildren, and they are cute, sweet, innocent, precious, lovable. But I would never say of them that they have character.
They are characters, they don’t have character. [audience laughing] For character is formed through testing and training. No one is born virtuous. No one inherits character. It has to be developed. Good parents train children to grow in character, which is why they assign chores and enforce rules and demand respect, why they require them to share toys and follow the rules of the games so that their friends can win every once in a while, too, why they punish their children for disobedience.
What parents don’t and perhaps can’t accomplish at home, the reproofs of life usually do, putting children to the test. In fact, research shows that children develop resilience when they face at least some adversity at a young age and learn to negotiate, overcome, and endure it. Parents rob their children when they intervene too quickly and often, thus depriving their children of the lessons they must learn through difficulties that are sure to come their way sooner or later. I wish there were another way, honestly, I do.
I wish it were true for me and for you. But I don’t think there is. I was talking with my daughter, married now, with two kids, just the other day. We were reflecting on our own family story. And she said, “Dad, I so wish there were another way. “And yet when I look back now, “our way, it’s been a beautiful way, Dad.” We are by nature people who would rather have the world conform to our own whims and wishes rather than submit to a God who uses the world to conform us to his wishes. We get to pick.
The fact is, we will face adversity whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not. We might want instant happiness, even insist on it, but we will never get it. In fact, I don’t even believe in instant happiness anymore, at least not as a goal that I can seek for and secure directly. And it was actually reflections on Scripture, not just experience, that drove me to that, especially a very small little detail in Genesis Three, of all passages.
It says this, “After driving Adam and Eve “out of the Garden of Eden,” you know, after they had sinned. “God posted angelic guards at the entrance gate “forbidding re-entry and forbidding it permanently.” So God not only pushed Adam and Eve out of the garden, he refused to let them back in, which strikes me as odd, kind of mean, really. I can see officials at Disneyland expelling unruly students for a day, but never let them return? That seems unreasonable to me.
After all, Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. Wouldn’t you want unruly children to return to Disneyland? So why did God post the guards? Why deprive Adam and Eve of the blissful conditions of the garden? Didn’t Adam and Eve need the security and perfection and happiness of the garden even more after sinning against God? I don’t think so.
The worst thing to happen to us, as sinful and selfish as we are, would be to live as perfect, imperfect people in a perfect world, for at least two reasons. First, because over time, we would make it imperfect anyway, which seems pretty obvious to me. Secondly, because we would assume the world exists solely for the purpose of making us happy. But is happiness achieved by living in a perfect world? In my mind, happiness is less the product of an ideal environment and more the result of the development of inward capacity.
Circumstances don’t make us happy. Something inside us does. I would say the Spirit of God. I know many people who are happy, though they suffer from constant deprivation. I know just as many people who are unhappy, though they enjoy life’s bounty. What will engender this capacity for genuine happiness? Ironically, it’s the imperfection of the world that will do it, or better, create the conditions for it.
We need adversity, at least, we need it some of the time. For adversity exposes our selfishness, reveals our need for God, and enlarges our inward capacity for true happiness for God. Adversity does this work in the same way exercise grows muscle by breaking it down first. Only people whose circumstances would appear to yield unhappiness, strangely, as it sounds, are actually gonna become truly happy, or can.
They stop requiring from the world, their spouses, their children, their jobs, their circumstances, and they learn to find it in God, the source of all that is good. Without adversity, we would remain like spoiled children who expect the world to conform to our every whim and wish. That is why I believe, now more than ever, that circumstances play a largely neutral role in the Christian life. That’s a hard thing for me to say. It’s been a hard-fought insight for me to gain. God uses adversity as well as prosperity to shape our lives, and adversity probably more often, enabling us to love God and become more like him.
Now, not morally neutral. Bad is bad, wrong is wrong, no matter what the outcome happens to be. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that much good has come out of the accident that occurred so many years ago, so much good. But the good resulting from the tragedy does not make the tragedy itself good and right. It never has been, and it never will. It remains in my mind a bad and horrible and wasteful event. In short, outcome and event is not quite the same thing. A good outcome does not excuse or justify a bad event.
But redemption operates differently, for God can use the worst events possible to work out his redemptive plan as we see it most clearly, obviously, in the story of Jesus. I can’t imagine anything more senseless and unjust than the crucifixion of the Son of God. It was an evil act, perpetrated by cruel and cowardly people. But God used that event to accomplish the salvation of the world.
The act itself was bad, exceedingly bad, the outcome was good, good beyond measure. God made right what was in and of itself profoundly, inexcusably, horribly wrong, and the result was the world’s redemption. Now, I’ve spent years studying church history, and one of the topics that I’ve studied has been the history of the Desert Fathers and Mothers as they came to be called, which emerged as a kind of countercultural movement of discipleship after the Church started to enjoy the state’s favor in the fourth century.
They chose to make the barren, lonely desert, a place outside the mainstream, on the margins of things, as their base of operation. And there they fought against the devil, they practiced severe forms of spiritual discipline like fasting and vigils, and they worshiped God, praying, listening, practicing quiet. They wanted to become spiritual athletes. That was, by the way, one of their favorite terms, thereby challenging the compromised faith that was slowly turning the Church soft.
They were odd and fanatical, to be sure. I’m always drawn to eccentric things. It’s one reason why I like these folks so much. But they demonstrated earnestness of faith and radical commitment. Now, they attracted thousands, probably thousands and thousands of followers, so many, in fact, that one Desert Father, I think it was Father Antony, observed that the desert had become like a city. Many stayed in the desert for a lifetime. Others visited for a few months or years, and then left, spreading the movement elsewhere.
And one of these visitors, a man named John Cassian, wrote two books about the movement, distilling the wisdom of the desert for the Church in Gaul, modern day France. Cassian summarized the teachings of the great Egyptian masters of the movement. One of those masters, Abba Theodore, suggest that our problem is that we tend to evaluate what is good and bad based almost entirely on our circumstances. Thus, life is good if our circumstances are good, and life is bad if our circumstances are bad.
But Theodore argues that the only true evil is sin. The only true good is virtue. God’s, which defines and embodies true virtue, and then ours, as we imitate God. Therefore, much of what we judge as good or bad is really indifferent, that’s the word he uses, indifferent. According to Theodore, indifferent implies that it could be good or bad depending upon our response to the work of God in our lives. Thus poverty can be good or bad, and likewise, riches can be good or bad. Life can be good or bad, and likewise, death.
Adversity can be good or bad, and likewise, prosperity. It all depends on our response to God in our circumstances. I’m quoting Theodore. “But those things are indifferent “which can be appropriated to either side “according to the fancy or wish of their owner. “As, for instance, riches, power, honor, “bodily strength, good health, beauty, life itself. “And death, poverty, bodily infirmities, “injuries and other things of the same sort, “which can contribute either to good or to evil “as the character and fancy of their owner directs. “What we need,”
Abba Theodore says, “is a spiritual life “that transcends our circumstances,” which he called, his term now, ambidextrous spirituality. [audience laughing] The word ambidextrous, as you know, describes a person who is equally adept using either right hand or left hand. In baseball, an ambidextrous person, for example, would be inclined to be a switch-hitter.
But Abba Theodore applied the term not to earthly but to spiritual matters. “Ambidextrous disciples,” he said, “learn to live for Christ “in both adversity and prosperity.” Quote, “This power we also can spiritually acquire “if by making a right and a proper use “of those things which are fortunate “and which seem to be on the right hand.”
As you can see, he’s prejudiced against left-handed people, sorry. “As well as those which are unfortunate “and as we call it, on the left hand.” Theodore noted how God uses both prosperity and adversity to advance his purposes. Prosperity would seem preferable, of course, because it makes seem God seem good and the world seem bright and faith seem natural, as natural as writing with our dominant hand.
Obviously, adversity does the opposite. It makes life seem hard. Temptation overruns us and doubt plagues us and routine bores us and people bug us. “Ambidextrous Christians,” he said, “take both in stride by faith, “as Job and Joseph did, for the most part. “Prosperity does not lead to carelessness, “adversity does not lead to despair. “We shall then be ambidextrous,” he concludes, “when neither abundance nor want affects us, “and when the former does not entice us “to the luxury of a dangerous carelessness.” Wealth can do that, you know. Happiness can do that, success can do that.
My terms, I go back to the quote now. “While the latter does not draw us “to despair and complaining, “but when, giving thanks to God in either case alike, “we gain one and the same advantage “out of good and bad fortune.” And then he uses this telling metaphor. He urges that we become like steel rather than wax so that we leave an imprint of faith and obedience on our circumstances rather than those circumstances leaving an imprint on us. So adversity, in and of itself, is not our real problem, ever, according to Theodore. It is our perverse will, our rebellion against God, our lack of faith. God can use adversity as well as prosperity to enlarge our capacity to trust God and reflect his image.
They are tools in his hands, like the hammer and chisel Michelangelo used to sculpt his figures, setting them free from their marble grave. We don’t need just the right set of circumstances to mature as Christians, nor to find happiness in life. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, God remains himself. He uses whatever is at hand to make us his and make us like Jesus Christ. Circumstances are neutral. They can be neutral because God is never neutral. His entire being is devoted to our salvation and redemption.
As Paul proclaims so triumphantly, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, “not when we look into the face of Jesus Christ.” I learned this lesson through 20 years of marriage, and then 20 years of widowhood. Now, I’m learning it again as a married person, for I just remarried three years ago. Assuming reasonably good choices, I have discovered that marriage, widowhood, and remarriage don’t matter all that much in God’s grand scheme of what he wants to do in my life. They provide little more than context.
The real story, the real action of the story, is how I choose to live by faith in my circumstances, however well or poorly I do. As Paul writes, “Whether slave or free, “whether Jew or Gentile, “whether circumcised or uncircumcised, “whether married or single, “in prosperity or adversity, “only one thing matters.” As he writes, “I say this for your own benefit, “not to lay any constraint upon you, “but to promote good order “and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” Now, no doubt your circumstances are different from mine. You might be single, as I was, and wish to heaven you were married, or married and wish you weren’t.
You might be unemployed, eager to take whatever job comes your way, or employed and ready to quit. If your circumstances are not to your liking, you’d be wise to change them if you can. You’re not forbidden to do so. Sometimes such change is justifiable, though, of course, never at the excuse of disobedience to God. Still, it is simply too easy and convenient to assume that a change of circumstances will solve all of our problems.
Some, perhaps, but certainly not all, for no matter what the change is, you will always be stuck with yourself. [audience laughing] As my dear wife Pat says to me, “Wherever you are, there you are.” [audience laughing] Whether you get married and find a job, stay married and at your job, or get out of a marriage and quit your job, you can’t get rid of the self you are. And God is intensely interested in that self. He will use whatever state you are in to transform your life, even, especially when it involves adversity.
The Apostle Paul is very clear on this point. A preoccupation with circumstances, he uses the case study, obviously, of circumcision and uncircumcision, slavery and freedom, singleness or marriage, for example, can keep us from being attentive to God’s ultimate will for our lives, which is to live a life of faith and obedience right where we are. “Was any of you at all times, “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised?” Paul writes. “Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. “Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? “Let him not seek circumcision, “for neither circumcision counts “for anything nor uncircumcision, “but keeping the commandments of God is everything.” Reminds me, by the way, of another story of the Desert Fathers.
This is told to the great Abba Macarius. He had been in the desert for, like, 35, 40 years, living this unbelievably disciplined life of deprivation, one of the mega stars of the movement. One day, he had a dream, and an angel said to him in the dream, “You have not yet attained the level of righteousness “and holiness of two women living in the city.” Well, hearing the word women and city was enough to about knock him over.
And so he was so curious, he wanted to find out who these people were. So he went into the city, the story doesn’t give a lot of details, goes into the city and looks around, and finally finds a house with two women. Knocks on the door and they come to the door, and he says, “An angel of the Lord told me “I have not yet attained your level “of holiness and righteousness, “and I’d like to know what you’ve done.”
And they kind of look at each other and say, “We don’t know, we were just with our husbands last night.” With is a code word for sex. So not only are there women living in the city, now, they’re having sex. And they look at each other and say, “You know, we’ve just lived together as sisters “for many years. “We were married, and we asked our husbands “to release us from the burden of marriage “so we could live like you in the desert, “and our husbands said no. “So every day, we have simply tried “to live a life of holiness right where we are.” And Macarius says, “I get it now.”
Doesn’t matter whether you’re married or single, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re in the city or the desert. The only thing that matters is that you’re responsive to God right where you are. Well, few pastors in the history of Christianity have explored the practical implications of the Christian faith with greater insight than John Calvin. He believed that earthly prosperity is a divine gift, and we can, in good conscience, enjoy it, assuming that God hasn’t given that as a gift, and we use it as God intended.
But he also recognized that it will always be fleeting. Adversity is an inescapable reality, for we live in a fallen world. It is not possible to have one without the other. But it is possible and right to live and love God in both. On the one hand, we should thank God for our prosperity and exercise moderation in how we enjoy it, lest we become idolatrous, and function as good stewards.
On the other hand, we should look to God for perspective, strength, and comfort when facing adversity, which even under the best of circumstances is bound to afflict us. “God is still God,” he said, writing his redemptive story. “In the end, all will be well.” Not that we should dismiss or ignore the severity of pain we feel in the face of adversity. As surprising as this sounds, John Calvin was not a stoic. He affirmed the legitimacy of human emotion. Still, however real, emotions do not define reality.
God defines reality, and his reality is redemptive. I am not suggesting that we pursue adversity as if it were inherently virtuous. We might follow a course of life that leads to adversity. Some jobs do that, mission work might do that. All kinds of things may involve and require adversity. But never for the sake of adversity itself, which would be masochistic. There is nothing inherently good or pleasant about adversity, and God does not call it good or require that we like it, but that we believe he can and will work good out of it. He invited us to, he invites us to submit not to the adversity itself, but to him in our adversity.
I have very fond memories of a saint many years ago I knew, a lovely, lovely older woman who cared for her invalid husband for 10 years. Though he was incapable of any kind of communication or movement, she read to him, she sang to him, she talked with him throughout the day, and invited friends over to their home every Sunday night for a hymn sing, old school, you know. [audience laughing]
She did not choose such adversity, who would? But she did choose to embrace it as God’s will for her life, perhaps even as a gift. As she would say to me with a smile, “In sickness and in health.” Neither am I suggesting that we reject prosperity, as if it’s inherently evil. Prosperity, after all, is God’s gift. Calvin pointed that out. But it poses certain risks, all the same. We know that, don’t we? It can engender a spirit of entitlement and selfishness and complacency. That all is well in our little world does not mean that all is well in the wider world, God’s world. So prosperity has its problems, too.
After all, who needs God if life is good? There are no guarantees. Circumstances are largely neutral. Their ultimate impact depends upon how we respond to God in and through them. You can tell by now I’m pretty ruthlessly realistic about life. Like anyone, I want my life to turn out well, and for the most part, it has. But the few occasions in which it hasn’t have been profoundly disruptive and painful, and they have forced me to my knees, reminding me how little control I have. I have taken my hits, most people do.
But there is more to it than that, for I have also experienced the redemption that has come out of those hits. Perhaps you have, too. The letters and emails I’ve received over the years remind me that people can be and often are enlarged through their suffering, becoming extraordinary people, full of wisdom and goodness and love. They have forgiven wrongdoers and perpetrators, they have adopted special needs children, they have started nonprofits and served the poor and fought for justice and accepted sickness with grace, and so much more.
And again, it all seems a wash to me, as strange as that sounds. Tragedy and happiness, singleness and marriage, riches and poverty, sickness and health. I might prefer one over the other, and I’m sure you would, too, and rightly so. I might even get to choose one over the other, and I have on occasion. But my power of choice is very limited, and so is yours. As I discovered, when a drunken driver on a lonely stretch of highway in rural Idaho demonstrated and changed my life forever, 22 years ago.
Sooner or later, we will face surprises along the way, some a delight to us, others a horror. Life as we know and experience from day to day and from season to season simply is, like it or not. We enjoy prosperity for its time, perhaps a long time, and then we face adversity. No doubt natural preference will always lean in the direction of prosperity. Who doesn’t want the good life? But natural preference will not always prevail. Adversity will eventually get its way.
No doubt there are reasons, too, why life takes on the peculiar shape it does, and we would be wise, I think, to explore what those reasons are. We might learn a great deal that will help us along the way, from mentors and spiritual advisors and therapists.
They have an important role to play. But after the exploration is done, we will have to face one undeniable fact, life is still the same, and it might not always be to our liking. Joseph’s story stands as a witness to the truth. No matter what we could have said in that prison cell, he was still there. Then we will face the proverbial fork in the road.
Our natural inclination is to desire, expect, and probably even demand the life of the garden. We want life to be just so, which is a way of saying we want to return to the version of the garden that appeals to our own interests. But God has closed and locked the gate to the garden, and he has blocked the way. The days of the garden are over, and as we well know, they have been over for a very, very long time. But all is not lost. God is cultivating a different kind of garden. And that garden is you and me.
The persons we are becoming, the life we live, the good we accomplish, the service we render. Surely Paul had something like that in mind when he described Christians as emitting the aroma of Christ, the fragrance of the garden. What he seems to be implying is that God is making us into his garden. He intends to use the beauty, aroma, and fruitfulness of our lives as a sign of and witness to his redemptive work in the world until all has been done, and all is well. Thanks for your attention. [audience applauding]
Host: All right, we do have a few minutes for questions. Thank you, Jerry. So if you have a question, raise your hand. There’ll be a mic on that side, as well, and wait for us to get to you before you–
You don’t have, I can’t see anything, you don’t have–
Host: Yeah, if we could have the house lights come up a little bit, that’ll help.
Audience Member: Thank you, first of all, Jerry, I just love your heart. I think if you would have spent 45 minutes talkin’ about fly fishing, I would have have left half-heeled [laughing], so thank you for your spirit. I wonder, I’d love to get your take on something. Dallas Willard used to say that the main purpose of prayer in the Bible is asking and receiving answers to prayer.
And part of receiving answers to prayer is the faith of the person praying, the confidence they have in God. It’s not all of it, but that’s part of it. Recently, a well-known Christian leader passed away after suffering for about a year, and I had a chance three weeks ago to talk to his wife. And she told me that they did not see a single answer to prayer in that 12-month period of time. She still believes in God, but she doesn’t believe in petitionary prayer any longer.
So when people ask her to pray, she feels funny because she doesn’t really believe that praying makes a difference. I just went through a period of suffering for about eight months, and practically everything I asked of God didn’t happen. And so what that has done for me is lowered my confidence that God answers prayer, and I’d like to get that back up a little bit [laughs]. So for people who’ve suffered and God doesn’t seem to listen, do you have any thoughts about how to strengthen your confidence in petitionary prayer in the midst of those kind of circumstances?
Okay, next question? [audience laughing loudly] What a way to start out. [audience chuckling] You like my heart, I don’t like yours at all. [audience laughing loudly] Yeah, let me respond, I mean, I could hardly give an answer. It’s absurd that I would even think that I would give two sort of angles of vision.
I’m more comfortable with angles of vision than I am answers per se. One would be we’ve got a great book, the Bible, that allows us to express our heart when we don’t believe, and it’s called the Psalms. And we should be using those as prayers. I mean, after all, one of those psalms was on Jesus’s lips when he died on the cross.
And it was hardly an expression of faith, at least as we normally understand it. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So I would say the first thing is that we turn to the Psalter, and it’s the cry of the Church, whether in praise or in doubt or in anguish. That would be one thing I’d wanna say. Secondly is we’ve gotta learn to live in some tensions. I’m thinking about the great passages in Luke 18 where Jesus tells us to pray as the woman who keeps going to the judge, nagging him day after day until she receives her request, and he says, you know, “I’m not gonna answer your request “because I like you. “And because I’m a good person, “I’m gonna do it to get you off my back.” And Jesus said, “We need to learn to pray like that woman.”
In Luke 11, he uses the phrase, “We should pray with importunity,” and the Greek word actually means immodesty. We should pray with immodesty. We should be that bold and brash. And yet, he turns right around and tells the story of the Publican and the Pharisee, where we go before God, we don’t even look up to heaven but beat our breast and say, oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner, in which case, we’re praying out of deep humility.
So try to live in the tension of brashness on the one hand and humility on the other. The last thing I wanna say is a little bit about our expectations of God in the first place, and here, I turn to the Gospel of John. You know, you read Matthew and Mark and Luke, and you just see miracles kinda flying all over the place, as if Jesus is, you know, kinda getting close to being sort of a miracle vending machine here.
But John only mentions seven, and he calls them signs. And in each case, after he performs, Jesus, that is, some kind of miracle, he uses it as a teaching opportunity to say, you know, I give you the miracle, but you really need something more and other. You wanted bread, and I gave you bread, and after that, they wanted to make him king so they could get bread every day. And he said, “What you really need “is not the bread that I’ve broken for you, “but me, the bread of life. “That’s who you need to eat.”
And after he healed Lazarus, of course, you know what the problem with the miracle of Lazarus was, right? He died again. I mean, it’s a modest miracle, in a way. We always look at it as this spectacular occurrence, and obviously, it was. But it postponed the inevitable, and we don’t know how he died. Cancer, a horrible heart attack, maybe he got leprosy, maybe he rotted to death, one day at a time, for all we know. The punch line of that story is “I am the resurrection and the life.”
So all of our prayer requests for sort of immediate help, we should pray brashly and boldly but recognize that our true longing goes beyond these kinds of earthly requests that we make. We shouldn’t stop doing it. I think that’s disobedience. Jesus commands us to pray. But we should do it with a kind of eye toward our deepest longing, which is the defeat of death and sin and hell itself in the resurrection. That was an awfully long answer, my gosh, sorry. [audience chattering]
That’s all right.
Host: Jerry, I was also thinking, just in what you’re responding to J.P. there, just earlier tonight, you mentioned how, after the accident occurred, for about 10 years, the way you put it, is you were just surviving.
Host: And so, you know, there are these periods as we’re recovering from trauma and grief where character is being formed, but it’s not a triumphant
kind of character formation.
Yeah, and we also have to have a robust theology of the Church. We evangelicals, we’re just so individualistic so much of the time. And I am a card-carrying evangelical. [audience laughing] But when it comes to, when it comes to prayer, we need to settle into the Church and realize the Church prays.
I’ve remembered several occasions in my life where I would go to church, and I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t pray. I just cried. And I, the church prayed for me, and the church sang for me. We do that for each other, both the local church, our own friends, but also the universal Church. Every day or every week, this Church gathers to pray and sing and worship, and it’s a force unto itself. It carries all of us to some degree, doesn’t it? ‘Cause sometimes we’re in places in our life where we’re shouldering more of the burden.
I’m probably at that place right now, for at least this short period of time. I could fly home and die in a plane crash on the way, but for now, I’m at a better rather than a worse place from an earthly point of view. So I shoulder some burdens. Some day, people are gonna do it for me again. This is what the Church is and does for each other. We’re not in this alone. I’m getting kind of preachy here, I’m sorry. [audience laughing] Oh, gosh, a professor. Were you a professor, too?
Oh, please. [audience laughing loudly]
Audience Member: It’s for the Church.
These people need to shut up and let others [laughing]. [audience laughing]
Audience Member: Totally, yeah. [Jerry laughing] Well, this’ll be easier, I think, you know, I think of the lament psalms. There are, there’s so many lament psalms, and for our own personal life or for counseling another, when one goes through this tragedy, these adversities, would you say just continue to lament, if that’s what’s going on, and let it ride its course and see what happens–
with the spirit, your own spirit? Or would you say, no, there may come a point where, you know, our theology, like as you presented here, that that needs to kind of interject and pull out of the lament, or what do you, how do you
go with that one?
No, I think lament should be a lifestyle. I don’t think it should ever stop. And here’s what I mean. I kinda came to this insight along the way, and it isn’t mine, it’s the Church’s, especially the ancient Church. Our culture, I think, this is maybe too broad, but we are inclined, when we face adversity, to wanna get over it.
And we think, okay, six months, a year, I’ve had so many people say, “How long?” And I don’t think we get over, I think we grow into. I think mourning should be a lifestyle. And the capacity, what marks growth is not that you get over mourning, it’s that you learn to mourn and have joy simultaneously. And I think that’s a capacity that God can grow in people. But I don’t like this, I’m not attracted to this “I’m gonna do this and then that, “so I’m gonna somehow get over this.”
I think you grow into it, and then you start to wear it, and it starts to feel more comfortable to you. You know, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” He didn’t say, “Blessed are those who once mourned.” He said, “Blessed are those who are mourning, and they’ll be comforted.” And I think what he’s saying there is that we need to learn how to mourn all the time. Now, sometimes it’s more immediate and visceral.
You understand this, you know, you’ve been in this business for a long time. It’s more immediate, more visceral, more dominant where it’s the only sound you hear, it’s the, you only see life in one color, and it’s dark. And I think that can change over time, but it doesn’t change because you get over it.
It’s because you start to wear it more comfortably, and then more colors appear. And the sounds you hear become more varied. I guess that’s my, in fact, it’s a deep, deep conviction of mine. You know, because I went into print about some of this stuff I was saying to Steve earlier, I get a lot of mail. And, you know, I suppose I can turn this into a kind of counseling machine with form letters, but C.S. Lewis answered every one of the letters he received with longhand, and I am a three-foot-in-diameter asteroid orbiting around C.S. Lewis as Jupiter. [audience laughing]
I am fourth string, and if he did, what does that say about the rest of us? No, or you can learn in your capacity to just mourn, because there’s a lot of bad stuff in this world. And I don’t wanna have a gated community mentality where I kinda lock myself away. It just doesn’t seem right to me, it doesn’t seem Christian to me. I don’t do it very well, but that’s what I want for my life.
Audience Member: Dr. Sittser, first of all, I just wanna–
Do you teach here?
No, I’m not a professor, [audience laughing] I’m not a professor [laughs]. I’m a graduate of Biola. First of all, I wanna thank you very much for your words and sharing your stories and your reflections. It brought together a lot of threads of things that I feel like God’s been teaching me, but you kind of all pulled it together. I guess my question is, I can think of two friends, one Christian, one not.
And they have faced real adversity in their life as well as, you know, ways that they feel like they’ve been wronged, or things that they’re lacked or suffered as a result of not having that other people have had. And, you know, it produces confusion, anger for them, sometimes bitterness or a sense of outrage.
Audience Member: And I wonder what to say to them because sometimes I feel like they’re making it worse based on their attitude towards their circumstances, what’s happened. And I try to give them a bigger perspective. But many times, that comes across as being uncaring–
or unsympathetic. So you know, I was struck, you used the Joseph example in the prison, and maybe this is a way of answering that question of what should we have said to Joseph while he was in prison with no hope in sight for him of any change in circumstance?
Oh, that’s so tough. It’s really a pastoral question, isn’t it? It’s a friend question. And I don’t know how to respond to that. I mean, it has happened to me so, so many times, you know. People go through a difficult experience in their life, and the tears turn to brine, the pain turns to bitterness. It begins to eat away their soul, it really becomes poison.
Reminds me of that great quote from Othello when Iago says to someone, you know, he was the antagonist who wanted to destroy Othello out of jealousy and hatred, and he said, “If you could lick my heart, it would kill you.” Wow, that is so profound. But then, that was Shakespeare. [audience laughing] I’ve been workin’ on lines like that my whole life and haven’t even gotten close to it. [audience laughing] An asteroid around Jupiter, right? Oh, I hate these guys, they’re just so smart.
Anyway, I don’t think there’s anything you can say. I think you pray in your present, really. You pray in your present. You know, I have observed this a lot in people’s experience as well as my own. You know, you find all kinds of instant friends who are sort of half-voyeuristic after you go through a tragedy.
They all wanna be insiders for about three months. But the people who are true friends will hang in there for a long, long time. I think that’s what you do, you’re quiet, you’re present, and wait for God to open a door when maybe a word can be said that’s the right word and not just words. It’s the best I can do, sorry.
Audience Member: Dr. Sittser, could you, I was really moved by your book “A Grace Disguised”, as well, and I’m just curious if you could briefly comment on, I don’t know if it was the chapter, but the whole section of “Why Not Me?”
Yeah, yeah, that was, again, sort of hard fought. It was actually, the whole question was stimulated to me by my doctor father Martin Marty at the University of Chicago, and we were chattin’ on the phone. He actually knew my family pretty well when I was a student at the University of Chicago.
And in fact, I saw him just a few months ago in Chicago. It was really lovely to see him. He’s very faithful to his students. Anyway, so we were talking, and he said, “Jerry, I know “because you’re a modern American, “that you’re gonna be tempted “to ask the question ‘Why me?'” We all do, you know. And he said, “Ask this question, too. “‘Why not me?'” Well, that’s all it took, and it got me thinking. I thought about this for a long time. And it struck me as interesting that we are always hoping for a fair world.
But when I thought about that with some reflection, I thought, I don’t know if I wanna live in a fair world. There’s actually a religion that basically is the fairest religion on planet Earth, and it doesn’t attract me very much. Everyone gets what everybody deserves. And on the surface of things, you think, well, that sounds pretty good ’cause then you aren’t gonna suffer from tragedy. But when I thought about it after a while, it occurred to me, I really didn’t deserve my first wife, Linda, in the first place.
I certainly didn’t deserve a Godly mother that I had, didn’t deserve my kids, don’t deserve my second wife, don’t deserve my kids now. So I came to the conclusion it’s better to live in an unfair world if you can have grace. That’s really what it amounts to. So I’m willing to take my hits to live in a world with grace, which is receiving what none of us deserve. Now, that’s easy to say in three minutes [laughs].
A little longer to kinda come to that insight in a way that really penetrated me. But it’s not mine, it’s the Biblical insight. The Bible does not ever promise that it will give us a fair world. We live in a fallen world. So unfairness flies everywhere, but it promises grace, and that’s a world I wanna live in. [inspirational electronic music]